Practicing to become a UU minister
by Donald E. Skinner
Dennis McCarty, a few months out of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and halfway through a ministerial internship at the People's Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is finding that ministry is hard work, challenging, fun, a little scary, and rewarding. Best of all, he's finding that he made the right career choice.
McCarty is doing what all prospective Unitarian Universalist ministers must do before they are accepted into fellowship by the Unitarian Universalist Association serve an internship, both to gain practical experience by working with a seasoned minister and to refine a sense of ministerial calling.
Intern ministry is not new. Experienced ministers have always guided newer ones. But in the last decade the process has been refined and more congregations are welcoming interns. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which oversees the credentialing of Unitarian Universalist ministers, now requires an internship of all candidates for our ministry. Students from the two UUA-affiliated seminaries, Meadville Lombard and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, plus Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have historically had the best chance of getting strong internships because of their schools' close connections with congregations. But through the '90s, as more Unitarian Universalist ministers began coming out of other seminaries, it became apparent that help was needed.
In 1997 the UUA established the Internship Clearinghouse to help bring congregations and prospective interns together. As a result, says the Rev. Dr. Ken Olliff, the number of ministers doing internships has increased as has the number of congregations deciding to become teaching institutions for the first time.
Take Kalamazoo. McCarty is the first ministerial intern the congregation has had, at least in recent memory. Its senior minister, the Rev. Jill McAllister, has been in ministry for ten years, the last five at Kalamazoo.
The decision to host an intern grew out of conversations that McAllister had with the congregation about the meaning of ministry as something that the congregation does not just the minister. That led to a decision to seek an intern minister and thus to McCarty, whose initial slight case of nerves about doing ministry has given way to confidence and enthusiasm.
"It's been a great experience so far," he said this past November. "I've made mistakes but I've recovered from them. I've had all these individual pieces of ministry from my classes. This internship helps make them coherent. It's very vital to developing a competent ministry."
McCarty has helped the congregation form a young adult group, a campus ministry, and a coffeehouse. He's also working closely with the congregation's social justice committee.
The relationship is also working for McAllister. "From my point of view it's fantastic," she said. "The congregation sees it as a way of serving the movement. What I've discovered is that by having an intern who is asking me questions, I've been able to rethink, in my tenth year of ministry, what do I mean when I say or do something? So it's helped my development and growth. And we discovered that by having another person we more than doubled the amount of ministry we can do as a congregation. He's helping us reach out into the community in ways that will continue after he's gone."
Full-time internships usually last nine months; some interns choose to do part-time internships that allow them to experience two church-year cycles. For those who choose community ministry rather than serving a congregation, internships are also done in hospitals, colleges, and other settings; all interns are required to be affiliated and involved with a local congregation.
"An intern's job is to learn how to be a minister," Olliff said. "Congregations often develop a feeling of pride that 'we helped make this person into a minister.'"
The Rev. Paige Getty was ministerial intern and then summer minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, California, from November 1999 to August 2000. "Being an intern allowed me to have authority, but with the knowledge there was a safety net," she said. "It reinforced my calling. I was a little fearful that after spending a lot of time and money on ministry school I might not like practical ministry.
"The nature of an internship is that you're given the freedom to take risks and make mistakes in a forgiving environment," she said. It also helped her experience the work cycle of a minister, the emotional demands of the job, and the balancing of work with family life. Getty is currently interim minister at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, Overland Park, Kansas.
Congregations hosting an intern are required to have a settled minister in final fellowship with the UUA and to pay the intern a stipend based on the cost of living in their area, said Olliff. The UUA recommends a minimum of $1,200 a month for a full-time internship. First-time congregations may apply for a grant paying half the cost. The second year it hosts an intern the grant drops to a quarter of the cost. Half to three-fourths of the congregations requesting grants receive them.
The Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California, has had interns annually for about thirty years, in part because of its proximity to Starr King, but also because the congregation considers itself a teaching church.
"The rewards for the congregation are to have a person with fresh ideas and a lot of energy," said Mt. Diablo senior minister the Rev. Dr. David Sammons. "We take it very seriously. We have a sense of helping grow people who contribute to the future of our movement."
Don't make the mistake, said Sammons, of viewing interns as cheap employees. "Some think it's a cheap way to get a youth advisor or someone to do pastoral calling or even fold orders of service. And don't treat them like a household pet someone to feel good about, but not someone to put real demands on. They need to be treated as ministers, given real responsibilities, and honest feedback."
Hosting an intern is a major commitment of time and energy, he notes. "It takes three to four hours a week for supervision, helping them with sermons, and just talking. For me, the real payoff is now that I'm in the last years of my own active ministry, I know these are the people who will be taking my place. Internships provide practical learning which is irreplaceable. It feels good to share what I have to offer. And I get invigorated and challenged by it."
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.